Mount Fuji

Using an English Windows® computer in Japan

Ever had that feeling nobody loves you? Until quite recently, if you were an English Windows user in Japan, you would know exactly what it's like to be left out in the cold. To start with, your erstwhile best friend Microsoft didn't want to know you. If you tried to order their English software online from English-speaking countries you would be reminded that only Microsoft Japan is licensed to sell Microsoft products to customers in Japan, regardless of their linguistic background. Head on over to the Microsoft Japan website, however, and you would find not one single word of advice in English for non-Japanese. 

Although English software has now become more accessible to foreign residents the length and breadth of these islands thanks to Internet downloads (or mail order) direct from the manufacturers, the local websites they automatically refer you to are still entirely in Japanese. The newcomer not versed in the language either needs to solicit the help of a Japanese friend or rely on in-browser translation. 

This is nevertheless a vast improvement on how things used to be. I can remember the days when if you walked into your local computer store and mentioned the English versions of the Windows operating system or Microsoft Office the response would be a sharp intake of breath. Doubting staff would call up local suppliers and regional wholesalers and only after a second or third layer of resistance had been overcome did they feel confident enough to accept your order for delivery in about 2-3 weeks.

Even now, once you've laid your hands on some English software in Japan do not expect to receive any technical support. Technical support remains the preserve of mainstream customers, those with a Japanese operating system and mastery of two to three thousand Chinese characters. Written Japanese has been called one of the most complex means of communication on the planet, and even natives often require a hiragana phonetic superscript to help them read words correctly. For foreigners, many of whom are here on short-term stays and simply don't have time to become proficient in the language, using a Japanese OS computer can be a daunting experience. One false move in a dialogue box or wrongly interpreting an error message can lead to a fair bit of trouble, perhaps the loss of valuable data. 

In recent years there has recently been a solution, but at first it came at a price! Windows 7 Ultimate edition allowed users to change their operating system's default interface language. This much-needed facility should be available to all PC users in a world increasingly on the move, and finally it is in new Windows 8.

Even with an English-language interface successfully installed on a Japanese OS computer, you'll still have to get used to the layout of a Japanese keyboard, something which renders it less than perfect for typing in English. Since there are no gaps in between Japanese words, the all-important space bar has been made uncomfortably short in order to accommodate some extra keys the locals have grown accustomed to. It is interesting to note, however, that neither the Chinese nor Koreans have done away with their long space bar, perhaps a measure of the importance they attach to doing business in English.

A further challenge presented by the Japanese keyboard is its awkward [shift]+[7] placing of the apostrophe key, which the average Japanese rarely has to worry about but a writer of English needs all the time. The double quotation mark is similarly marginalized at [shift]+[2], where in the U.S. you'll find the @-mark.

New English OS computers in Japan either have to be custom ordered from Dell or purchased over the counter at one of the duty-free shops for tourists in Tokyo's Akihabara Electric Town or the Nipponbashi district of Osaka. Virtually all of these models are intended for export, and a plug adaptor may be needed for power connection in Japan. The international warranties are usually valid for just a few months, and after that you either pray nothing will go wrong with your PC that you can't fix yourself, or you simply go out and buy another one because they're one third of the price they used to be. The savvy English OS user in Japan soon learns self-reliance backed up by a shelf-load of manuals from Amazon.com

All peripherals must be carefully selected from those few items for which English-language operating software, drivers and help manuals can readily be obtained, generally products from overseas manufacturers with worldwide distribution. Since the domestic models of Japanese brand all-in-one printers tend to have features and specifications different to those in the rest of the world, no English software is available for them. Hewlett Packard has stepped into the void and now includes English OS drivers and software with most of the printers and scanners it sells here. 

Last year I purchased an excellent EPSON all-in-one printer in the UK that was manufactured in the Philippines specifically for the European market (220-240V). This kind of rigid geographic market segmentation on the part of Japanese firms explains why you cannot buy an English OS-compatible EPSON printer for love nor money in Tokyo's world-famous electronics Mecca, Akihabara. Overseas competition is finding it makes a whole lot more sense to ship pretty much the same models worldwide with 100-240V power compatibility and benefit from greater economies of scale.

Japan has a long way to go before it becomes as internationally minded as say Singapore. The problems encountered by its English-language computer users are basically ones of attitude in a society still not geared up for catering to minorities. Against this background, America's leading software and hardware makers should be reaching out to the growing number of English-speaking customers in this part of Asia. 

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